I just didn't see Babcock as a hockey psychologist, putting players on a long leather couch for some postgame analysis: "Bertuzzi, I noticed you have only 4 points in 12 playoff games. Are you still doing your self-motivation mirror exercises? Do we need to form a sharing circle with the rest of the power play?"
I decided to call Babcock's alma mater, McGill University in Montreal, to figure out what advantage - if any - a background in sports psychology could give a National Hockey League coach. Gordon A. Bloom is a faculty member of the Department of Kinesiology and Physical Education (KPE) at McGill, where Babcock studied as an undergrad and graduate student while also playing for the McGill men's hockey team. In fact, Babcock has a lucky tie in McGill colors that he's worn during several Red Wings' victories. (It also comes in handy as a blindfold when Scott Niedermayer has the puck in overtime.)
The following is a conversation I had with Bloom about his department's most famous student:
Is it rare to have professional coaches with sports psychology degrees? No offense to Lindy Ruff or Randy Carlyle, but neither of those guys look like they'd pass up a good kegger for an all-night cram session in the university library.
You're 100 percent right. Professional coaches, no; Olympic and university coaches, yes. There's a growing trend for the value of having a Master's degree for becoming an Olympic or university coach in Canada and the U.S. Coaches in those domains usually have more education than professional coaches, who go right from their playing days to becoming a professional coach. [Babcock's] a rare breed.
You said that Babcock works with the McGill men's hockey team, communicating with its head coach, and that you're a sports psychology consultant for that team. Have you learned anything from that interaction?
I know how he thinks, because he talks to our coach a lot. Everything I know about him - no personal contact - shows that he has a very clear understanding of how to communicate with athletes, how to teach and how to deal with stress and anxiety. Other people may say that the practical experience of playing is where it all should come from. He was a university athlete, but I tend to believe that to get an edge in today's coaching you need to go beyond playing experience. You have to have some academic experience...really have an understanding of how the human body and mind works.
There seems to be a trend in sports management where people are being hired who have more of an academic, rather than ex-jock, background; like the Minnesota Wild hiring a former beat writer for their front office, for example. Do you believe there will be a trend in coaching where education will be more important than simply hiring the most recently retired player with the most famous name?
That's an outstanding point, and I absolutely do think that's going to become the trend. We're seeing more and more undergrads who are going for a Phys. Ed. degree but are more interested in going into coaching. You're seeing more and more of what I call the "professionalization" of coaching. I think Mike is a perfect example of that, and that more and more people are going to follow his pedigree. They understand the physiology, the bio-mechanics, the nutrition; as a coach today, you have to look at the holistic development of the athlete.
You know, as a sidebar, Bryan Murray is also a McGill graduate. Not from our department, Kinesiology and Physical Education department...
I don't think they had Kinesiology back when Murray graduated.
Well, they had Phys. Ed.
So if Babcock gets to the Stanley Cup Finals for the second time and actually wins the championship with the Wings, what does that mean for the sports psychology department that raised him?
It's not only great for our department, it's great for our men's hockey team as well. He's somebody that remembers his roots. He's not someone that's vanished off the face of the Earth when he made the next level. I've heard nothing but amazing things about this guy.
Murray, Ottawa's head coach, and Babcock have more in common than their alma mater. Murray hired the current Wings coach for his first NHL head coaching gig when he was the general manager in Anaheim; and, like Babcock, he never played a game in the NHL before becoming a coach - he owned a sporting goods store prior to stepping behind the bench.
In other words, we might just end up with The Sports Authority vs. The Sports Psychology in the Stanley Cup Finals...